Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Presumably, the Minister would not apply those questions on social class to students from Northern Ireland, who will be discriminated against on his position.

The Minister said earlier that he wanted to defend the four-year degree, except that, at column 794 on 8 June, he described it as a "bogus tradition", so will he tell the House: what is it? Is he intent on defending the four-year honours degree, or does he still regard it as a "bogus tradition", as he did last month?

Mr. Wilson: That is a characteristic sleight of syntax, because I did not describe the four-year degree as bogus. I know exactly what I said because I saw the glow of excitement on the hon. Gentleman's face when I said it. I will recap what I said--it goes back into the general debate, but I am happy to recap.

When I and, I suspect, the hon. Gentleman went to university, a relatively small minority of Scottish school leavers who went to university did honours degrees. If I remember rightly, roughly 30 per cent. did four-year honours degrees and 70 per cent. did ordinary degrees. In the interim, that has turned around, so that 70 per cent. do honours degrees over four years and a small minority do ordinary degrees, which are then, by inference, regarded as inferior to the norm of the four-year honours degree.

1 Jul 1998 : Column 443

What I said and stand by is that something that grows up over that relatively short period is not a tradition. It is bogus to call it a tradition, because a tradition goes back centuries, not 30 years. It is the norm of the four-year honours degree in Scotland that is not a tradition. It has grown up very recently.

Let us return to the top four schools supplying pupils to the Scottish universities: Eton college, Wellington college, Charterhouse and Westminster school. I say gently to my old and honourable Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that the amendments that he declared publicly that he will support tonight will help students in Eton but not in Elgin, in Wellington but not in Wallacetown, in Charterhouse but not in Chapelhall, and in Westminster but not in West Lothian. That fact should be borne in mind as the debate proceeds.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Does the Minister accept that the perception--which is held both domestically and internationally--that there is fairness and non-discrimination in the United Kingdom is not bogus? If so, how can the Government justify requiring students from Northern Ireland, England and Wales to pay £1,000 more than students from Europe? How can they justify requiring students from Northern Ireland to expend £1,000 more than students from the Irish Republic? Although I take account of the fact that there is provision for those on the lowest incomes, I am concerned that those who are just outside those bands will be greatly disadvantaged.

Mr. Wilson: In a moment, I shall deal with the European point--which, superficially, seems to be anomalous--and seek to address it.

First, however, I point out to the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) that it is not only the poorest who will pay no fees. As a rule of thumb, as a norm, fees will not be paid by those with household incomes below £23,000. Moreover, for those who pay, the fees required will not leap suddenly from nothing to £1,000 a year. There will be a graduated scale, and one will have to be fairly far up in the earnings league before having to pay the full £1,000.

I stress again that anyone from Northern Ireland, like those from elsewhere, who has made the choice of doing a Scottish honours degree course--many do, and they are all extremely welcome--will take fees into account as one of a range of factors. I repeat also that people will not automatically be required to pay an additional £1,000 a year; it is a £1,000 maximum over a period of four years.

As I said--I think it was before the hon. Member for East Antrim joined the debate, but I make no point of that--there have always been extra costs. Any student from Northern Ireland who decides to do a four-year honours degree in Scotland instead of a three-year honours degree elsewhere knows that there will be an extra year of maintenance costs and a year of income forgone. He or she will take all those factors into account in making a decision.

I should like to point out one aspect of the Lords amendments that all hon. Members should understand. It is quite true that it would cost £2 million annually to meet the fees of all fourth-year students on Scottish courses from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The sum can be dismissed as a relatively small one--although the

1 Jul 1998 : Column 444

principle, rather than the sum, is important. However, I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House understand that the Lords amendments would go much further and make the same provision for all United Kingdom students on four-year degree courses at institutions across the United Kingdom. Such provision would cost more than 10 times as much--about £27 million annually.

We would not have that £27 million available to put into higher education. Any hon. Member planning to vote today for the Lords amendments should do so in the full knowledge that £27 million would be taken from higher education. Where would that money go instead? It would, by definition, go to the best-off people, who would be the only ones who were required to contribute towards their children's tuition fees at the full £1,000 level. That subsidy would mean that, each and every year, there would be £27 million less in public funds for universities and colleges. The cost is significant.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): The Minister is dealing with an important issue. He has admitted that the £2 million that it would cost to exempt students attending Scottish universities is a moderate sum. The basis of his argument--which has changed very rapidly, and was made clear last week by the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's questions--is that the sum required to exempt more students from fees for four-year courses would cost the Government £27 million. The analysis that we have had done by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom, which I think the Minister will agree is a reliable body and not one that panders to the Liberal Democrats, is that it would cost around £12 million, and that the Government have not discounted the tuition fees at all but presume that every student will pay £1,000 and the Government will meet that cost. That clearly is not the case, so will the Minister give an analysis of where the £27 million has suddenly come from?

Mr. Wilson: The £27 million comes proportionately from the number of students in England who are doing four-year degree courses. I have tried to break down the number affected in Scotland, and that is what would be covered by roughly £2 million, but incrementally there is a far larger number. As I understand it--this is not within my territory, but it is something that has grown up over the years--there is a much more substantial number of students doing four-year degree courses in England than perhaps had been widely appreciated, and certainly many more than are doing them in Scotland.

Mr. Willis: There are 50,000.

Mr. Wilson: I am not quite sure how the hon. Gentleman gets a multiplier that takes him to 250,000. As I said, it is 10 times more in England than in Scotland in terms of cost.

Mr. Willis rose--

Mr. Wilson: I am happy to correspond with the hon. Gentleman if he wants to pursue the point of detail. Incidentally--

Mr. Willis: This is a serious point.

Mr. Wilson: I recognise that it is a serious point, and I shall perhaps answer it when I wind up the debate. I do

1 Jul 1998 : Column 445

not dismiss it. I point out in passing that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals was among those who supported the introduction of tuition fees as a necessary method of getting extra money into higher education.

This debate has been largely about Scottish courses. If it were self-contained, it would be an interesting debate, but different from the one that we are having tonight. The secretary of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals wrote a letter to The Scotsman last week. He was totally dismissive of and not interested in the £27 million argument--that is for someone else to worry about. He wrote:

He went on to dismiss with an airy wave of the hand four-year degree courses in England which, he said:

    "cannot be regarded as authentic higher education at all and certainly not comparable with the first year of Scotland's distinctive four-year degree with honours."

I do not have the luxury of saying that I do not care about these folk in England doing four-year degree courses because the degrees are not worth anything. That is a ridiculous thing to say. The Government are obliged to take account of the fact that there is a UK-wide effect from the cost of this, and that the argument that prevails in Scotland is exactly the one that should prevail in the rest of the United Kingdom. In other words, it is a Unionist argument again, as opposed to a divisive one.

Next Section

IndexHome Page